In a historic event in Manipur, members of some rebel militant groups that have signed truces with the government were allowed to exercise their franchise in the just-concluded 16th Lok Sabha polls in the state.
Members of the hills-based Kuki National Organization (KNO) and the United People’s Front (UPF), which have Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreements with the government, voted in the elections to the Outer Manipur Lok Sabha constituency on 9 April; their valley counterparts were also supposed to follow suit in the election for the Inner Manipur seat on 17 April, but it fell through, apparently because the government did not make the necessary arrangements, leading to a certain degree of recrimination.
The rebel groups under the umbrella of the KNO and UPF comprise 23 armed factions. An agreement for suspension of operations was signed in 2005 with the Central government (Ministry of Home Affairs) and later a tripartite agreement involving the Government of Manipur was signed in 2008.
The valley-based United Revolutionary Front (URF), and certain factions of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and Kanglei Kanna Yawol Lup ( KYKL).have also signed Memoranda of Understanding with the government.
The SoO agreements oblige the rebel groups to abide by the Constitution of India, to stop all extortion and other illegal activity, to confine themselves to designated camps, and to deposit arms.
Special arrangements, with a separate nodal election polling officer, were made for the KNO and UPF cadres. A total of 280 ballot papers were provided to 14 SoO-designated camps for the cadres in the Sadar Hills area, where in one such camp, Natheljang Ebenezer Camp in Kangpokpi, about 42 cadres cast their vote. In Churachandpur district, 195 cadres of rebel outfits of the UPF cast their votes in seven designated camps on 9 April.
On polling day in the Inner Manipur Parliamentary constituency, 17 April, the appearance of a clean shaved Ningthoujam Nongdrenkhomba alias Romen in a formal suit along with his wife at a polling booth caused a major sensation. The commander-in-chief of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP- MC) outfit exercised his franchise at Kumbi (C) polling station in Bishnupur district.
Most of his fellows, however, did not get the opportunity to exercise their franchise, apparently due to the failure of the authorities to make necessary arrangements for them to cast their votes, despite the Election Commission's instructions.
An estimated 584 cadres from seven valley-based militant groups are under the umbrella of United Revolutionary Front (URF), the KCP (Lamphel) group and the KYKL (MDF). A tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed by these outfits, the Manipur government and the Union home ministry was signed in February 2013. The agreement covers non-involvement in anti-social and anti –national activities by the cadres, while the state and Central governments are expected to ensure security for the cadres. The cadres are lodged in temporary designated camps scattered over the state.
No arrangements were made on the lines of those made on 9 April for the KNO and UPF cadres to allow them to vote at their respective camps, nor were there any arrangements to escort the cadres to their respective polling stations, complained a leader of one of the pro-peace groups, who also pointed out that they are being targeted by other rebel outfits and it is not safe for them to move out of their camps. The authorities were not clear why arrangements similar to those made for the hills-based groups were not made for the valley-based pro-peace groups, but it is certainly something of an opportunity lost. The overwhelming response from the cadres who did get to exercise their franchise shows that it could be the beginning of charting a new course of political discourse in Manipur and the North-east at large.
The writer is a delhi-based freelance contributor